Growing organic endive is not an easy proposition. It involves two complete growing stages – the first to produce the roots and the second to produce the bulb.
The arduous and painstaking process is the primary reason California Endive Farms is the only commercial grower of the leafy vegetable in North America and the only organic endive grower in the world. With its highly sophisticated process, the company does provide both organic and conventional endive to the North American market on a year-round basis. Director of Sales Mike Reed spoke to OPN at the end of August from the company’s farm in Rio Vista, CA, just as production of the roots was entering a critical phase.
Reed explained endive is a member of the chicory family, which includes radicchio, escarole, frisee and curly endive. The first growth cycle takes about 150 days in the field, where the chicory grows from seed into a leafy green plant with a deep tap root. At harvest, which typically begins in September and lasts six weeks, the tops of the leafy chicory plant are cut off, and then the roots are dug up and placed in cold storage where they enter a dormancy period that can be maintained for more than a year.
The roots are available on a year-round basis to be “planted” for final production. The second growing stage takes 28 days in a dark, cool, humidity-intensified room, similar to a mushroom growing facility. Each root produces one endive bulk, with projected demand four weeks out determining how many roots are planted each week.
California Endive Farms has both red and white endive throughout the year. Reed said organic demand is growing quickly which has caused the firm to significantly increase its production capacity. “We had 20 percent growth last year and I have planned for 30 percent growth this year.”
It’s a difficult proposition making those growth calculations as the seed that produces the crop for the next year was planted in the spring. Reed said food shows and innovative chefs have put endive (pronounced on-deeve) on the foodie map. It has a crisp texture and a sweet, nutty flavor with a pleasantly mild bitterness — great served raw or cooked. It is often used as a “boat” for a high-end hors d’ouevres.
Reed said organic demand is growing rapidly as it is one of those items that retailers can single SKU, only carrying an organic option.
While endive is often sold bulk, its sensitivity to light after being grown in the dark has led to packaging innovations by California Endive Farms. Reed prefers a pre-pack option in which the oxygen level can be controlled. This also allows for packaging real estate to promote uses to the consumer and assures an accurate ring at retail.
Endive has also become a favorite item for the meal-solution delivery companies to include as it adds a certain cache to any meal kit.
Endive is a price-stable item but organic endive is sold at a premium. Typically, he says a conventional pack will retail at about $2.99 for three heads, while the organic option is more commonly seen at $3.99 for the three-head prepack. “It is more expensive because organic endive has special handling needs and we have to do it twice – through both growing stages,” Reed said.
California Endive Farms product is available throughout the country especially as an organic item, where the firm has virtually no competition. Conventional endive is shipped to the United States from Belgium and France, with most of that product staying on the East Coast.
No adverse weather issues have damaged this year’s root crop so there should be good supplies of endive available from California Endive Farms for the next 12 months.